Opponents of a plan to eliminate after-school programs at Brandon recreation centers and close most of those centers say they are confident they have enough votes on the Hillsborough County Commission to defeat the plan.
“Don’t let them tell you it’s over. We can do it,” Terry O’Grady told a standing-room crowd at the Brandon Recreation Center on Thursday night, Aug. 11.
Parents, children, seniors and parks workers packed the center for the boisterous rally, which drew more than 300 people.
Undaunted by a 4-3 commission vote in July to cut after-school programs and mothball services at 31 of the county’s 42 recreation centers, rally organizers said they thought they could save the after-school programs and the majority of recreation centers.
“We have three commissioners on our side now, and we have two more who are coming,” O’Grady told the cheering crowd. “We can do this, but you need to get on the phone tomorrow and call the commissioners. You need to email them. You need to let them know this is what the people want."
O’Grady also criticized the makeup of a roundtable committee that came up with the cuts. The committee said the 1,800 children in the program could be absorbed by the school district’s after-school program and by the YMCA and other after-school care programs.
That may be difficult in Brandon. The YMCA has already said it doesn’t for an after-school program.
“This roundtable included people from the school district and the YMCA, but did they didn’t include the voices of parents," O'Grady said. "Tonight, they are hearing the voice of the parents.”
O’Grady and his supporters are backing the plan proposed by County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
The Hagan Hybrid would keep more recreation centers staffed and keep the after-school program at those centers. The county commission will consider the idea Aug. 24. Hagan crafted his hybrid plan with input from O’Grady, a Valrico businessman who presented his to the commission last month.
O’Grady said he thought Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Sandra Murman — both of whom voted to eliminate the after-school program last month — could now for vote for the Hagan Hybrid.
Melissa Lord of Brandon has one child in the after-school program and said she faced difficult choices if the after-school program closes its doors.
“Do I leave my job?" Lord asked. "Do I ask my 80-year-old father to look after my child? There are after-care programs out there, but they are very expensive. I think you will see a lot of kids end up as latch-key children if this happens."
Tina Chamberlin drove from Apollo Beach for the rally. She said she feared that closing her local recreation center would hurt her two young boys.
“They learn to play sports," Chamberlin said. "They learn team building. They learn about leadership and how to follow directions. If it wasn’t for the recreation center, they might sit at home all day during the summer just watching TV.”
Also at the meeting, a petition protesting the vote to abandon after-school programming and to close recreation centers drews hundreds of signatures. More than 2,000 people have now signed the petition, according to rally organizers.
The meeting ended as it began: loud and raucous and optimistic.
“This is a revival tonight,” thundered Jack O’Grady, Terry O’Grady’s brother. “We are going to take back our government and let them know that we want to keep our after-school program, and if they don’t, we will vote them out. They need to hear our voice.”
Said Terry O’Grady: “It was a great turnout tonight. This is just the beginning.”